Are these Christian tattooists in the paper any stranger—Simon Stylites spent a life standing on a stone pillar, sixty feet up— did not come down for cramps or winter rain.
Could I survive the Sacred Heart with “Hail, Mary, Full of Grace” across my arm, or the crucifixion in three colors against my sternum between my breasts. Needles to skin over soft tissue is less painful, but flesh is grass and sags— art lasts best close to bone.
No stranger than hair shirts, hundreds of needles for hours, for days, even years, to get the complete St. Michael on my shoulder to the writhing, twisting dragon down my leg. Or my whole life to get the Last Supper with Stations of the Cross, and the proper text— Jesus’ words in red— covering every inch of skin, eyelids, lips, nose, between fingers and toes, while invisible capillaries under the skin carry the images molecule by molecule into the living catacombs of bone.
A friend of theirs had been festering like an old sandwich, rotting a little before disposal. They had to come, but it got to where they held their breath before they stepped inside the room. The wife remembered how anything with mayonnaise had to be refrigerated.
Even a sack lunch in an office was suspect if stored under the desk for a morning: egg salad was the worst. The husband recalled a tiny door in the stone wall of an English church, stage right from the modest altar—a place for lepers to take communion. Only part
of a soul could pass, and precious little of the smell. The wife and husband talked with their old friend like this, backing off from his suppurations, unwilling to think, This is our body, unwilling to think, Dust to dust, slipping their elements of decay into the outer cold and darkness.
Maggie, her grandparents’ dog, can’t come with us to the zoo, we say she’s not feeling well and try to leave it at that, bring up tigers and polar bears, offer Twizzlers and juice, but all she wants is the dog, asks if we gave her medicine, when will she come back so we can fix her with a screwdriver, today’s new word, so many new sounds, so much new these days we can’t keep track of all the people and places she knows, and the names of things, reminding us we cannot save her from the word, or save ourselves from having to explain what dead means, as if we’ve waded through all we were taught and emerged on one side or the other, unable to dismiss or believe there’s one true voice that could reveal a pattern we’ve never picked up on in the sunlight and trees, some force behind why that could lead us beyond our parents’ loving euphemisms, beyond we simply don’t know.